The top prize at Cannes this year went to an extraordinary film called “The Class” about a year in the life of a dedicated French high school teacher and his students, many of whom are immigrants. It is now the official French entry for the Oscars and opening in theaters across the US. I spoke to director Laurent Cantet about making the movie, which blurs the line between documentary and feature film.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
I have a few memories of some teachers who made an impression on me. I studied in school about 10 years after [the student protests of] May 1968. Professors had also started to question their methods, and I had teachers like Francois who really tried to introduce questions, not just lectures. My parents were professors who encouraged student participation and I spent my childhood listening to people talk about school and pedagogical methods. That made an impression on me. And I have children so I see what school is like now. The French title is “Within the Walls.” I wanted to compare my experience with contemporary reality.
This film is designed to see what happens behind the scenes because school is a very private place. Children want to keep the space as a space that is theirs, their first place of independence. Professors protect themselves behind the walls of the schools.
One aspect of the school that will strike many Americans as unusual is that there are student representatives attending the faculty meetings. And indeed, the teacher in the movie finds that it creates some problems for him.
That is a requirement. It seems natural to French people to have students there, a question of honesty. There are two class representatives in staff meetings, entrusted with explaining the students point of view to professors and reporting to each student what is said about him.
What makes a great teacher?
If I knew I might be a teacher! It is indispensable that they take into account everything that the students live outside of the classroom. So the school can never seem like a sacred separate space. The world is more complex, I think, the personal stories of each of the students are more difficult, each with a very different trajectory, more than when I was in school.
The movie has elements of both documentary and fiction. It features non-professional performers and it feels very improvised, but in fact it was scripted, right?
In every movie there’s this question of reality and fiction. I like to give news, stories from the world, but I never want to do it as a thesis. I want to evaluate reality through the paths of different characters. I worked with non-professional actors who bring a way of being in front of the camera, notably they bring the experience of their own life. My job is like an orchestra leader, bringing out snippets of what they do and bringing it all together, which does not prevent me from writing a script.
What I had written was the story of Souleymane (the uncooperative boy who gets into trouble, played by Franck Keita). I met FranÃ§ois Begaudeau (who plays Francis, the teacher), a professor for 10 years in this kind of school, who had written about little moments of classes that he had himself. It was very easy for me to offer the role to him.
We had acting workshops every Wednesday for a year, improvised with the students and he proved to me that he was terrific. We opened the workshop up to all of the students and those who stayed with it got to be in the movie.
The actress who played Souleymane’s mother was the only one who was not the real-life parent. His real mother was not in France. But as in the film does not speak French, and she did children who lived through similar situations. She created the character based upon her experiences and a way of being.
When I met her she said, “When I go to a disciplinary hearing I am going to dress myself in the most dignified way possible, like a queen.”
The boy who played Souleymane, though, in real life is the complete opposite, very nice, very laid back, almost shy. But I felt very quickly that he liked acting. I had a hard time getting him to be tough enough until we were trying on costumes. When he was dressed very differently from how he dressed in real life, he felt the character. And the goth boy is not a goth in real life either. He felt like trying out something he would not dare to do in real life, and the costume did that immediately.
There have been a lot of very high-profile movies about teachers with difficult students. What makes this one different?
Those movies were my opposite example, exactly what I wanted to avoid, to be everything except Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society.” I wanted the professor to have his weakness, not to have a magic wand to solve everything. Through most of the movie we see the school can be a safe place but also a place of excluding people, like Souleymane who can’t find a place in the system but also people like Henrietta who lose interest and don’t understand what they are doing there. There is a roller coaster feeling, with great moments, great depression as much for the students as the teachers. What I want to do is describe the world in all of its complexity and contradictions.
Many thanks to translator Paul Young of Georgetown University for his assistance with this interview.
Thanks so much to my dear friend Lilah Lohr for showing me Andy Ihnatko’s wonderful blog Celestial Waste of Bandwidth and especially his Amazon Advent Calendar. I love his tribute to the classic musical “The Band Wagon,” which he bravely asserts is the best ever.
Okay, “The Band Wagon.” You need to know two things about this movie: One, that it is indeed “The Band Wagon” and not “The Bandwagon.” Getting it wrong is a rookie mistake and the true film snobs to whom you were so shabbily attempting to ingratiate yourself will see to it that you’ll never get into a Max Ophuls film festival in this town again.
Secondly, that it is the single greatest musical ever made.
I would not call it the best ever, but “The Band Wagon” is simply sublime and Ihnatko’s commentary is delightful. If you have not seen “The Band Wagon,” take a look — I promise you will say at least three times, “That song is from THIS movie?” It includes standards like “A Shine on Your Shoes,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and, yes, “That’s Entertainment” plus one of the most deliriously silly musical numbers ever filmed, “Triplets” and the song Ihnatko loves, “By Myself.” And it has the wicked and brilliantly danced satire, “Girl Hunt.” It also has a better book than most of the musicals of its era, with a shrewd insider’s take on artistic pretension and a frank acknowledgment of issues of aging and risk-taking in work and in life, and one of the most gorgeously romantic dance numbers ever, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing in the dark, waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Do romantic comedies create and foster impossible expectations? Are women doomed to disappointment when no man can possibly measure up to Lloyd Dobbler (Say Anything), William Thacker (Notting Hill) or Joe Fox (You’ve Got Mail) — or Cary Grant in anything?
Researchers at the Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory at Heriot Watt University in Scotland have concluded that may be the problem. In a new paper about the influence of romantic movies on people’s expectations about relationships, the researchers studied 40 films released between 1995 and 2005 and found that they conveyed to those in the audience a sense that the best relationships achieved a level of understanding that did not require the kind of communication that is necessary for real-life relationships.
Dr. Bjarne Holmes, who led the research, said: “We are not being killjoys – we are not saying that people shouldn’t watch these movies. But we are saying that it would be helpful if people were more aware and more critical of the messages in these films. The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realize.”
There are related studies on romance novels and one by Holmes on couple-oriented sitcoms (“In search of my “one-and-only”: Romance-oriented media and beliefs in romantic relationship destiny”). And Holmes is now asking for participants for an online follow-up study.
I do not believe anyone takes or should take these studies any more seriously than they take relationship advice from Julia Roberts movies. In other words, both are fun and sometimes provocative and can even offer genuine insights that can help illuminate relationship issues — finding the courage to take a risk, making love the top priority of your life, valuing yourself enough to value others — but by definition, movies have to take short-cuts to indicate important passages in a relationship or we’d be there for weeks. That’s what a montage is all about — we see the couple splashing each other on the beach and marveling over the goodies at an outdoor market while some sprightly pop song plays on the soundtrack and we accept that they are in love; that doesn’t mean we expect that in our own lives. This goes back way before movies. Even Shakespeare had to save time by having his lovers fall for each other at first sight, though he at least had them describe it beautifully.
I would guess that there’s something of a chicken and egg problem here. Those audience members who are attracted to romantic comedies (especially some of the second-rate ones in this study) are likely to have more of a tendency to, well, romanticize. But if they are really paying attention, they will see that one of the most important messages in any romantic film is that the best way to see those movies is while sharing popcorn with someone you love — and that the best part is talking to that person about it afterward.
If you are careful in observing the lessons from movies and other great stories about love in books, plays, operas, songs, and even paintings, you can find a true soulmate who makes all of the relationship ups and downs into life’s greatest adventure, someone who laughs with you, listens to you, and inspires you, and still holds hands when you go to the movies after more than 30 years. I’ve been lucky enough to find someone who is all of that and more.
Have a “Bolt” fan in your house? The first person to send me an email at email@example.com with “Bolt” in the subject line will get some “Bolt” goodies — a wall calendar and playing cards. I will also throw in another dog-movie-related treat. Good luck!